WEST HOLLYWOOD, California — "Y'all acting real industry right now," Roots' drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson joked to the crowd during a lull in his band's three-and-a-half-hour performance on Saturday night. "If y'all were really in the industry, you'd be up at Clive Davis' party right now."
And he couldn't have been more correct. For five years now, the Roots' pre-Grammy jam session has been the most unpredictable, least industry party during the most industry week in Hollywood. And this year's was no different. If anything, it was the most free-flowing and lively session yet. And it certainly ended later than ever before.
Held at the tiny Key Club on the same night as music executive Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy party (which took place at the palatial Beverly Hilton), the 2008 session was loose and unpredictable, the kind of event that musicians dream of playing and music fans dream of attending. There were unlikely, thoroughly amazing colaborations — like Seal strolling onstage unannounced to cover a Bowie tune as Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump played rhythm guitar and the rest of the Roots kept pace — totally off-the-wall song selections (the Roots and neo-soul singer Bilal funking up Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place") and a good-natured, party-up vibe that didn't stop until the clock hit nearly 4 a.m.
Taking the stage at 12:11 a.m. — bear in mind, the event was tentatively scheduled to start at 10 p.m. — ?uest took a seat behind his kit, loosened his tie and snapped a quick snare line; sousaphonist Damon Bryson (don't call him the tuba player) added a somber low end and guitarist Kirk Douglas launched into a version of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." The song built into a chaotic maelstrom, then fell away to a ?uest drum solo, which really became a drum duet when Travis Barker joined him on a second kit. The two passed the rhythm back and forth for a full eight minutes before Barker exited to thunderous applause and the song ended at around the 17-minute mark (we weren't kidding about the "longest-running" part).
The entire Roots crew then filled the stage, and worked through a version of "Proceed" (from '94's Do You Want More?!!!??!) which they dedicated to late producer and friend Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla. That gave way to a funky instrumental, powered by a hard-charging horn section and featuring James Brown-ian grunts from MC Black Thought. Soon after, Stump got onstage and lended his voice to a cover of the Police's "Walking on the Moon" (turns out he does a mean Sting impression), and then sung the hook on "Birthday Girl," the first single from the Roots' upcoming album Rising Down.
At roughly 1:45 a.m., Stump was giving pounds to the band and preparing to leave the stage when suddenly, Seal strode up, and after a lengthy discussion with Douglas, the band thrust into a version of Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel," with Mr. Heidi Klum delivering lines like "Hot tramp, I love you so!" with vampish aplomb. The unlikely group then worked its way through jazzy takes on Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" and the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle," all while members of the crowd — including Gym Class Heroes frontman Travis McCoy — went nuts, reaching toward the stage and thrusting Blackberrys, iPhones and cell phone cameras aloft.
And the guest stars just kept on coming. The Roots then brought Bilal up to jam through a couple of numbers — including the aforementioned take on Radiohead — which unfortunately killed the momentum Seal had built. Perhaps realizing that, Black Thought called hip-hop legends MC Lyte and Doug E. Fresh up to the stage, for a medley of old-school hip-hop hits ("Cha Cha Cha" and Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di" being two of the standouts), which got the crowd back on its feet, and by the time 3 a.m. hit, Fresh, Thought and "American Idol" runner-up Blake Lewis were engaging in a beatboxing battle that blew the roof off the place.
Then Corinne Bailey Rae stepped to the microphone to do a little work, and at 3:13 in the morning, ?uestlove finally stood up from the drum kit. The Roots' B-Team then assembled to help fellow Philly-ites Fat City Reprise play a few tunes. By this time, the crowd at the Key Club had started to thin, and from the side of the stage, ?uest could be seen eyeing a sheet of paper, a sort of set list comprised of 17 bullet-pointed items for the night. His eyes made his way down to the 17th of those points — "Get the f--- off the stage!" — so he decided to do just that, reassembling the Roots for one final musical outpouring, a thank you for the crowd, some onstage embraces and then, it was over.
It was epic. It was hectic. It was disorganized. It was everything a party is supposed to be. And, yes, it raged until long past curfew. In fact, as the crowd members spilled out into the streets, many of them happened to drive by the Beverly Hilton, site of the Clive Davis party. Not surprisingly, things had been shuttered there for hours. At this hour, the industry was already asleep.
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